On the evening of the 9th of September, about a hundred perfume fans gathered in the somewhat confined space of the Perfume Diaries exhibition at Harrods
to witness an interview with one of the giants of 20th century perfumery, Jean-Paul Guerlain, and his family firm's current in-house perfumer, Thierry Wasser
. Sadly, the layout of the venue prevented several audience members - some of whom had traveled from abroad specifically for the event - from being able to see the speakers. However, the sight of about fifty hopefuls trying to get into the presentation and being summarily turned away ensured that none of the lucky hundred dared to complain about the arrangements. The atmosphere was also eased by the appearance of Mohamed Al Fayed, who brought the guests of honour to their seats. When he asked the Guerlain
team if they'd brought any samples for the audience, he received an embarrassed "No" in response, at which point he turned to the crowd and said, "Well then you'd better make sure they give you a good discount!"
Guerlain and Wasser were dressed in elegant suits, both of them clearly comfortable in the role of immaculately groomed ambassadors of the world of luxury. The former, now in his early 70s, was obviously quite hard of hearing and not perfectly fluent in English, although he had no trouble using his youthful smile to charm the audience. Wasser, with his aquiline features, cut a charismatic - and surprisingly forthright - figure, skillfully playing the PR game whilst answering questions with a refreshing lack of pretentiousness. The banter between the two men was especially entertaining to watch and gave the impression that Wasser has genuinely been adopted by Guerlain as an heir and confidante.
When asked what he considers to be the main reason for the firm's longevity, M Guerlain immediately replied, "the quality." This was a theme to which the speakers returned several times during the evening, insisting that the company's decision not just to formulate but also to manufacture their fragrances in-house is one of the prime factors in their success. M Guerlain stated that, when creating new scents, he has always tried to come up with simple ideas and to stick to them "strictly".
He didn't have an immediate answer to the question of what he considers to be his greatest achievement. He acknowledged that Vetiver
is still one of the most popular masculines and he also considers Samsara
to be important, but he conveyed a special fondness for Nahéma
, although he conceded that it was not a commercial success.
He stated that one of the main pieces of advice he was given by his grandfather and mentor - Jacques Guerlain, creator of Mitsouko
- was to make perfumes for the woman he lives with, or the woman he loves, or the woman he admires. He also revealed that the first fragrance he ever wore was Cologne Imperiale
. His love for perfume is equaled only by his passion for horses, which began when he was aged 3 and was made to take up riding by a nanny who thought he was too fat. The equestrian theme then manifested itself in his perfumery with the creation of Habit Rouge
. He is also an avid cook and agreed that there are many connections between the worlds of food and fragrance. Indeed, he used a gastronomic analogy when the discussion turned to the subject of distinctions between masculine and feminine scents. "Men and women have a love for the same dishes," he said.
On the appointment of the current in-house perfumer, he stated that it was the culmination of a long process of working with and observing the team at Firmenich
. In the end, Wasser was selected because, according to M Guerlain, there was no-one better.
Wasser declined to provide a description of his own signature, claiming that an artist's style is "the vision of someone else". He said that he certainly does not know what his own style is, although he is aware that his way of writing a formula is very different from M Guerlain's. For instance, the latter's upcoming duo of masculines (Arsene Lupin Dandy
and Arsene Lupin Voyou
) contains much higher percentages of strong florals than Wasser would consider using in a scent for men. He also would not be drawn on the topic of what he considers to be his best work for Guerlain. He said his favourite project is always "the last one, waiting for the next one," after which he informed the audience that M Guerlain has some exciting plans to mark the centenary of L'Heure Bleu
in 2012. Wasser also allowed the guests a glimpse of a thin, handwritten volume used by the firm's founder, Pierre-Francois Pascal Guerlain, to record several important formulae.
There was time for only a few questions from the floor, which was a shame, because the audience was clearly eager to engage the speakers in a serious discussion of their craft. "If Guerlain's founder could travel forward in time to 2010," I asked, "what would he find most exciting and most horrifying about the state of today's perfume industry?" Regrettably, I didn't get a detailed answer, but perhaps M Guerlain's response was more revealing than a lengthy spiel: he simply curled his lips, shrugged his shoulders and said, "He would not be very happy."
The inevitable - albeit important - question about reformulation and the problem of oakmoss elicited focussed intensity from Wasser. He stated that because the rivalry between the major fragrance houses has always been so potent and because they continue to feel compelled to guard their secrets so closely, they have not been able to form a trade association to fight the influence of IFRA and EU lawmakers. It's a situation which "pardon my French," he said, "really pisses me off." However, he acknowledged that the luxury brands may now be trying to form some sort of an alliance.
He concluded by stating that the work created by the house of Guerlain in the past is vitally important because it should be used as a platform for any scents created in the future. Therefore, it is crucial that new bottles of the old classics remain as faithful as possible to the original formulations. Some differences are inevitable, he stated, simply because the raw materials themselves may have changed slightly over the decades or advances in technology may have introduced alterations to the final product; it would be "unrealistic," he said, to expect a bottle of Apres l'Ondee
made today to smell exactly like one produced in 1906. However, a policy of respecting the original is essential, which is why he has recompounded all the old Guerlain formulae for his own reference and uses them as guides in his work. He agreed that the industry is facing creative obstacles, but he said he is determined to fight them, and, with a smile in M Guerlain's direction and a conspiratorial nod to the audience, he lowered his voice and said, "We are very stubborn."
[The Perfume Diaries is on at Harrods until 2nd October; Wasser's reinterpretation of Shalimar - entitled Ode De La Vanille - will be available exclusively at Harrods within the next few weeks; M Guerlain's two Arsene Lupin scents will be available at the Paris boutique before the end of the year and should be available at Harrods in 2011.]
About the author
Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com
or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com
Images : Jonathan Rose for Guerlain